Corruption Halts Vietnam Adoptions by Americans

Limbo looks like this: a tidy one-room apartment decorated with baby toys and just enough space for a crib and a twin bed.

Karla Brendler and her 16-month-old daughter Madison inhabit this space between heaven and hell and just a few steps from a street full of noisy motor scooters. They live an unexpected and indefinite existence, victims of a changing international adoption policy between the United States and Vietnam.

In the wake of allegations of corruption and baby-selling, Vietnam recently terminated its adoption agreement with the United States. The last applications must be filed by July 1 and the program will be ended on Sept. 1.

The decision could affect hundreds of American families like the Brendlers, who have already begun adoption procedures in Vietnam. So far this fiscal year, more than 400 American families have opened adoption cases there.

Evidence suggests that some babies believed to be available for adoptions were actually bought or stolen, according to the U.S. State Department. In addition, some Americans have allegedly been asked to make enormous "contributions" to orphanages or individuals to complete their adoption procedures.

For Brendler, a kindergarten teacher, her unexpected stay in Vietnam began in October when she arrived to adopt Madison and bring her home to Iowa City, Iowa. Shortly after arriving she learned that the State Department was questioning information about her daughter's history: Was she really abandoned?

In the world of international adoptions, the question of abandonment is perhaps the most significant question.

For U.S. State Department officials, the question of abandonment, or in some cases relinquishment, determines if or when they grant the child a visa to go to the United States. In some cases, they have found that mothers were coerced into relinquishing their children and concluded there was no abandonment.

"Over a period of several months, in the course of doing our normal verification operations on visa applications for adoptions, we've uncovered an awful lot of fraud," said Michael Michalak, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. "We have worked with the government of Vietnam to fix this system, but it seems that the government of Vietnam does not have enough enforcement capability or enough legal authority to make the system work."

The State Department released a memorandum last month citing corruption in the adoption system, after which Vietnam announced that it would stop accepting adoption applications from American families.

In 2003, the U.S. suspended all adoptions from Vietnam over concerns about corruption, but a new agreement was reached between the two countries in 2006. Since that agreement took effect, more than 1,200 Vietnamese children were adopted by Americans.

There are 43 U.S. adoption agencies operating in Vietnam, all competing for the same babies.

"It's very hard for adoption agencies to work together and to stand behind ethical adoptions because there is a lot of competition," said a former program director for an American adoption agency. "Lots of families are hurting now because of a temporary shutdown, but there was a lack of understanding and it takes time to fix this. This time we need to be united and take ownership and we need to support both governments in order to make it work."

Vietnamese adoption officials admit that there may be problems, but claim that overall it is an honest system.

"I think many, many, many complaints are not correct," said Dr. Vu Duc Long, director of Vietnam's International Adoption Agency.

Long said that the Vietnamese must correct the problems, but that the United States must follow their country's rules while investigating cases of fraud. In contrast, the U.S. wants autonomy to conduct unscheduled investigations without a Vietnamese handler.

"Americans now are in Vietnam," he said. "They must make investigation with cooperation with Vietnamese side."

But many Americans waiting to adopt or who have recently completed adoptions in Vietnam do not believe the State Department's allegations of corruption, and have been able to prove the State Department wrong.

Last fall, 12 families were informed by the State Department that their visa applications would likely receive a Notification of Intention to Deny (NOID). And they were told that no one had ever overturned a NOID and that the best thing to do was return their child. Since September, 12 families were able to overturn those determinations and proved that corruption did not exist in their adoptions.

David and Charin French of Queens, N.Y., hired an attorney who helped them prove that there was no corruption in the case of their adopted son, Oliver.

"When I talk to friends, I feel like I sound like a conspiracy theorist because what the U.S. State Department did to us just sounds so unbelievable," said David French, a freelance writer. "It seemed to us that Department of State actions indicated that they had a larger agenda and in pursuit of that agenda they were willing to overlook the facts."

"He urged my wife and I to relinquish our son in order to send a message to the Vietnamese government, the message being that we did not support corruption. And the irony here is that for all of the State Department's claims that babies were being ripped out of mothers' arms, from our experience we did not see any instances of corruption in Vietnamese adoptions."

Several of the families interviewed by ABC all shared similar stories in which they were told that no NOID had ever been overturned and that the best course of action was — unimaginably for them – to return their child to the orphanage.

"We sat in the office and before they ever showed us the NOID and they said they have problems in Vietnam with adoptions and the best thing we can do given the evidence they had was to return our child to the orphanage. They said to just take her back – as if I could return her like a gift after Christmas," said one woman who did not want to be named.

She said they explained the procedure of reversing the Giving and Receiving Ceremony.

"I could not return my child until I saw solid evidence. When I asked for it, they said, 'We don't have that yet.' Meanwhile we were hanging out in this foreign country. I asked, if we don't do that what is the other option. They said there is an appeals process and this is how it goes. But he said there has never been a NOID overturned."

Irene Steffas, an attorney based in Marietta, Ga., said she overturned one in September 2006. Since last fall, she has overturned three NOIDS in the Vietnam adoption cases. She is currently working on Brendler's case.

"Whether it's in Vietnam or in Nepal, we get someone to do our own investigation and bring out additional information," said Steffas, who is working for Brendler with Vilaf, an international law firm that does work in Vietnam.

After Vilaf completed its own investigation into the case, Brendler was able to prove that there was no corruption, but the State Department found another instance of potential corruption with Madison's adoption and now Brendler must again prove no corruption occurred. Brendler cannot provide the details surrounding her case because it is still pending.

"I just differ with the results of the investigation by the State Department. I believe in the independent investigation. I believe they brought out the truth. And the others were cleared and brought out what really happened," she said.

"I'm the only mom she's known. I got her at eight months and she's almost 16 months. I'm not giving up," she said tearfully.

"If I thought for a moment that her mother and father were out there looking for her, I would want them to be with her and I would give her up. But I know that's not the case and it's been proven that it's not the case," said Brendler. "We don't want her to wonder. That's why it's so important to get their written history correct."

The State Department declined to comment on the cases of the Brendlers or of David and Charin French, or about whether they tell parents to return an infant because a NOID has never been overturned.

But in an e-mail statement, the U.S. embassy in Hanoi said, "Consular Officers can only lay out the options for any prospective parents - they do not recommend any particular choice, let alone tell them what to do."

Adoptions can cost about $20,000. But with stalled international adoptions like Brendler's, costs can rise dramatically. With agency costs, lawyer fees, home studies, travel, extended stay in Vietnam, lost wages, Brendler estimates her bills to be about $100,000.

Brendler sometimes feels that she is being held hostage in Vietnam away from family and friends. Her one saving point is the bonding time she has with Madison.

On the other side of the world, many Americans are stuck in a different purgatory. While waiting for the State Department to alert them of their status, they remain far away from the children they have never met, but have emotionally adopted and prepared their lives for their homecoming.

A new "Orphans First" program was put in place to determine a prospective adoptive child's status as an orphan before a parent travels to pick them up. The system was created to prevent situations similar to that of Karla Brendler and her daughter Madison, but the not knowing can be even more difficult for families who are desperate to see and hold the children that they have emotionally adopted.

One potential adoptive parent in Texas said that she had to remove the photographs of her adoptive child because it was simply too difficult to deal with the sadness.

"You go through all of these emotions and you're always looking for someone to blame," she said. "I know a lot of people in this situation and there aren't a lot of people who can help us. The agencies' hands are tied, the government's hands are tied and the Vietnamese government's hands are tied."

Lisa Belgrad of Chicago chose to adopt from Vietnam after she learned that there had been corruption issues in her first choice of Guatemala. The 41-year-old received her first photograph of her adoptive daughter last September. Since then, she's watched her grow over the course of several months through these images. The last image she received was in March.

Belgrad expected to fly to Vietnam to pick up her daughter in November. She had her baby shower before she learned of the problem with adoption. Now, there is a room in her home full of baby gifts that is too difficult for her to look at.

"I can get on a plane and go to Vietnam and adopt, but I can't get her out of the country because she needs the U.S. visa," she said. "But there's no investigation ongoing, the province and American Consulate have had difficulty in agreeing upon investigation procedures."

A senior State Department official said it is true that no investigation has been conducted in the region since December, but added that phone calls and negotiating has been ongoing.

"Everybody wants to help and nobody wants to hurt a child, but it seems she's collateral damage. I don't want to be involved in child trafficking, but I want this baby returned to her family or I want to adopt."